Winning might not cure everything, but it certainly can shift a narrative overnight—immediately lightening a mood and renewing hope that had been lost.
The Miami Hurricanes survived the Clemson Tigers on Saturday night at HardRock—erasing a ten-point fourth quarter deficit and doing so without their starting quarterback, top two running backs and a key defensive end—stopping the bleeding of a two-game losing streak that would’ve gone nuclear had a 4-0 start morphed into 4-3 these past three weeks.
Emory Williams replaced injured Tyler Van Dyke—the true freshman with a mere 15 attempts on the year in mop-up duty—tasked with going at a Clemson defense and program that might be a rung lower than what it was during recent title runs, but remains talent-heavy with future NFL draft picks and still has championship DNA flowing though its veins.
Henry Parrish Jr. and Mark Fletcher were sidelined for the Canes, leaving Don Chaney Jr. and Ajay Allen to carry the load on the ground—while defensive end Akheem Mesidor hasn’t played since Miami’s early-season win over Texas A&M—that standard mid-season shorthanded-ness was a thing, but with backs to the wall, the Canes responded, which is a testament to this coaching staff halfway through year two.
Despite being short-handed, Miami overcame a 17-7 early fourth quarter deficit, tied the game 17-17 in regulation, held Clemson to a field goal on the opening possession—answering with a field goal of its own, forcing a second overtime—where the Canes found the end zone and capitalized on a horse-collar penalty on Williams, setting up a shorter two-point conversion attempt that Ajay Allen slammed home, before Miami stuffed a 3rd-and-Goal attempt up the middle, followed by Corey Flagg Jr. taking down Cade Klubnik one-on-one, as the Tigers’ quarterback attempted to run it in to convert.
MISTAKE-PRONE CANES TURN TABLES ON TIGERS
Snakebitten the past couple of weeks, Miami turned it over nine times against Georgia Tech and North Carolina combined—a barrage of interceptions and poorly-time fumbles where the Canes couldn’t buy a bounce. Against Clemson, it proved to be the opposite as the Tigers turned it over three times—including an early Will Shipley goal line fumble similar to the one Parrish coughed-up in Chapel Hill last weekend.
A play later, a clever wrinkle from offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson—who played chess all night, creating wrinkles and impressively doing the most with the least—as a handoff to speedy wide receiver Brashard Smith went 80 yards to the house.
The play itself wound up giving Miami a 7-0 lead, putting the Canes on the right end of a 14-point swing—but the footnote to the story was receiver Jacolby George staying with the play and hustling all the way to the end zone as a blocker, which is what put him in position to leap on the loose ball when Smith was stripped just as he crossed the goal line.
Without that heads-up football and getting after it, the Tigers arguably recover, take over on the 20-yard line, it’s a 0-0 ball game and Clemson just got back what it lost on the other side of the field. Instead, a touchdown lead for Miami and a cushion for a stout defense, while this temporarily-tweaked offense gave Williams time to get acclimated to the game’s speed in his first-ever collegiate start.
ALL WENT WRONG AGAINST GEORGIA TECH; RIGHT AGAINST CLEMSON
This win over Clemson was the antithesis of a home loss to Georgia Tech the last time Miami hosted an ACC foe at HardRock.
In that memorable-for-all-the-wrong-reasons showdown, everything that could go wrong for the Hurricanes did—a phantom hold taking a touchdown off the board before Van Dyke served up and end zone interception the following play—as well as self-inflicted wounds where Miami twice settled for field goals in what turned out to be a three-point loss after disaster struck when the now-infamous game-ending knee was not taken.
Regardless of that boneheaded call—as well as the officials blowing getting the Chaney fumble wrong—Georgia Tech rose up defensively and kept the game within reach, to the point where a late touchdown was the difference in a game they were trailing 20-17 in the final minutes.
Had the the Canes played up to their capabilities against the Yellow Jackets—who were a 23-point underdog—that late score is a footnote, not the headline. Miami realistically should’ve been ahead by a healthy amount—one where a late score by the Ramblin’ Wreck wasn’t a game-winner.
Instead, Georgia Tech scrapped and clawed all night, finding ways to remain within spitting distance and it paid off. Two weeks later Miami was finally on the right side of things, in their hang-tough effort against Clemson—where the game was close enough in the fourth quarter to claw back from 17-7, trying the game up in regulation, sending it to over time, capitalizing on the Tigers’ porous red zone play and taking the contest.
Fans tend to look through games through the lens of the team they support, but for a moment it’s worth dissecting this from the enemy’s perspective.
Dabo Swinney and Clemson had zero business losing that football game to a reeling Miami program last night. Not with the powerhouse program that’s been built there over this past decade-plus.
The Canes were on the ropes with back-to-back losses, Mario Cristobal hadn’t won an ACC game at home since taking over at his alma mater last fall and cherry on top of this shit sundae, his star quarterback on the bench and the keys were tossed to a true freshman making his first-ever start.
The Tigers even theoretically caught a break with two of the Canes’ fiercest running backs on the bench—as Swinney’s bunch became synonymous with not being able to stop the run this season.
Even with all of that, Miami’s ground game still pounded out 211 yards, while Williams played game-manager, executed Dawson’s game plan, leaned on Van Dyke for in-game advice during the showdown and when the gloves were finally off and some big fourth quarter plays needed to be made—it was a back-up quarterback taking shots at big, bad Clemson.
Of course all of that was also made possible while first-year defensive coordinator Lance Guidry employed his 3-3-5 defense that gave Clemson’s offense fits, while unleashing defense end Rueben Bain for a monster performance—the freshman with eight tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble.
NOT THE CLEMSON OF YESTERYEAR; TIGERS STILL A FORCE
Admittedly this isn’t Clemson of a few years back. A program that reached the national championship game four of five seasons—winning two rings (2016, 2018)—as well as claiming seven of the eight past ACC Championship games.
Between 2015 and 2022, the Tigers put together an ungodly 100-13 record and even saw their home win-streak reach 40 games—ending last fall with the season finale against South Carolina, which safely protected Miami’s unchallengeable 58-home game-win streak from 1985 through 1994.
The type of program that reached the upper echelon—to the point where 11-3 and an ACC Championship in 2022 were considered a “down year” as the Tigers didn’t make it to the College Football Playoffs—reminiscent of the attitude in Miami in the ’80s where it was a “national championship or bust” energy.
Still, a step back is a step back—albeit even a small one. Miami experienced it in the early 2000s, though the catalyst for backsliding was solely due to Butch Davis taking that NFL money in January 2001 when the University of Miami failed to get his contract done. Cleveland upped the ante after the Canes finished 11-1 with a Sugar Bowl rout of No. 7 Florida—Miami finishing No. 2 after getting hosed out of a shot to play No. 1 Oklahoma for the championship—and the keys were tossed to nice-guy offensive coordinator Larry Coker.
The difference between alpha dog beast of a recruiter and hands-off substitute teacher style of management—there was a reason Coker went 24-0 out the gate with Davis’ roster, winning the 2001 national title, getting hosed out of a second on a bad call in the Fiesta Bowl the following season and still reaching the Orange Bowl in an 11-2 “down year” in 2003.
Of course that 35-3 start was followed up by 25-12 over the next three years, which saw 9-3, 9-3 and 7-6 before Coker was shown the door.
SWINNEY’S STABILITY KEY TO TIGERS RELOADING
Clemson’s slight step back isn’t rooted in the head honcho, as Swinney has been at the helm since taking over for Tommy Bowden halfway through the 2008 football season—but a revolving door of assistants when your name is not Nick Saban and your brand isn’t Alabama—that’s where the Tigers’ are feeling the pain.
Tuscaloosa started out a place where coaches made their name under Saban—Jim McElwain and Mike Locksley—as well as where other guys showed up to rehab theirs; names like Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian and Bill O’Brien, specifically.
Clemson has been a different journey; a place where much like their leader—it’s been home to the up-and-comers—outside of one move in 2012 that changed the game for Swinney, when he poached defensive guru Brent Venables from his long-time perch at Oklahoma for the same position and a lateral move.
Venables showed up in 2012, soon after the Tigers had gotten rolled 70-33 in the Orange Bowl by West Virginia. Three years later Clemson reached the national championship and spent the next five years in the thick of the hunt—even promoting from within when Tony Elliott was elevated from running backs and Jeff Scott from wide receivers—both taking over as co-offensive coordinators—which Scott held until 2020 when being tapped our the South Florida head coaching job, while Elliott lasted until 2022 when Virginia made him their new leader.
Even more concerning for Clemson, Venables leaving his perch after a decade—when the game of college head coaching musical chairs saw offensive guru Lincoln Riley bailing the Sooners for the Trojans and Oklahoma doubling back to the defensive coordinators that helped them capture the 2000 national title under Bob Stoops.
The tweak in formula saw Wes Goodwin and Mickey Conn taking over a in co-defensive coordinator role last fall, while Brandon Streeter was promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator in 2022—a gig that lasted one season before Garrett Riley was tossed the keys this fall—Swinney going outside the norm and grabbing the TCU play-caller that had just reached the national championship game last season with the Horned Frogs.
Talent-wise, recruiting has remained on-brand, as well—though a rung below what Alabama has done under Saban, which Georgia and Kirby Smart have spent hundreds of millions of dollars working to replicate. The Tigers last five classes ranking 11th (2023), 10th (2022), 5th (2021), 3rd (2020) and 10th (2019)—which is more than enough to keep playing football at a high level in the ACC and chasing Playoffs berths.
MIAMI LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD YEAR TWO UNDER CRISTOBAL
All of that way-too-much Clemson backstory is shared by design; a reminder that Swinney still has a damn good football program—and Miami legitimately punched them in the mouth, going toe-to-toe with the Tigers all night—which should leave Canes fans with hope in regards to where this program is headed as this is only year two of the Cristobal era.
This is a Clemson program that blew Miami out of Memorial Stadium last fall—an evening where the phoney Swinney chose not to take a knee on 1st-and-Goal from the Canes one-yard line with :16 remaining and punching it in—as 40-10 looks better in the box score than 33-10, which Cristobal and these players certainly hadn’t forgotten.
Prior to that, a 42-17 beating in Death Valley during a reshuffled COVID-defined football season. The Canes also met the Tigers in 2017 after UM’s first Coastal Division title—rolled up 38-3—and two years prior, a 58-0 massacre in Miami that sent Al Golden to the unemployment line the next morning.
Clemson won the last four match-ups by a combined score of 178-30, while Miami looked like a junior varsity squad—and Swinney was loving every minute of it; mocking the Turnover Chain in a post-game celebration in the 2017 ACC Championship, while having no qualms about late scores and sticking it to a Miami program that used to run roughshod on others.
Miami brought the fight, which has been a calling card of this second-year team all season—even in two losses—and when comparing it to last year’s 5-7 run, it’s a night and day difference that unfortunately has gotten buried the past two weeks with fan frustration after the way the Georgia Tech game unfolded, as well as another turnover-defined evening in Chapel Hill last weekend.
A valiant comeback against Georgia Tech was lost in the shuffle when Miami didn’t close—resulting in a two-week downward spiral where everything was questioned. The fact the Canes completed the comeback against the Tigers; Cristobal, his staff and this team deserve to be judged on this latest milestone, while the past two weeks stay in the rearview—as Georgia Tech and North Carolina were defined by one massive coaching blunder and nine turnovers that saw two winnable games lost by a combined 13 points.
Of course the next act defines this most-recent one and if Miami lays an egg against a Virginia team that just found a way to upset undefeated North Carolina in Chapel Hill—proof of letdown games after big wins as the Tar Heels just beat the Canes a week ago in their house—the textbook definition of one step forward and two steps back.
This win over Clemson absolutely felt like it could be a wheels-off moment for 2023; much like a mid-October home loss to Duke last fall—dropping Miami to 3-4 on the season and setting the stage for 2-3 down the stretch—including a 45-3 ass-kicking at the hands of Florida State.
The Canes puffed up early third quarter after two bang-bang scores put Miami up 21-17—only to watch the team not have the discipline, discernment and fortitude to handle Duke’s second act, as the Blue Devils outscored them 28-0 from that point on in the embarrassing 45-21 loss.
To go from what we saw last year to this type of line improvement on both sides of the ball—a ground attack that and some different alignments that allowed the Canes to rack up 211 yards against the Tigers—while Miami’s front seven held Clemson to 31 rushing yards; incomprehensible for a program that let Middle Tennessee State ring them up for 45 points and 507 total yards last September.
BACK TO THE GRIND; TWO DEFINING WEEKS AHEAD
While there are no do-overs for October, Miami has a chance to build off this success over Clemson—taking care of business against Virginia at home, before traveling to North Carolina State on November 4th seeking the Canes first ACC road win of the season.
Should Cristobal’s rejuvenated program complete the mission, Miami is looking at 7-2 going into Tallahassee—where the Seminoles could easily be 9-0 after road trips to Wake Forest and Pittsburgh these next two weeks—night and day from the Canes limping into last year’s home showdown 4-4 after surviving a four-overtime, offensive-less abortion of a football game in Charlottesville, 14-12.
On a weekend where the Canes outlasted the Tigers, there stench of the Seminoles was still in the air as 5-Star defensive end Armondo Blount—who committed to Miami mid-September, a week after the upset of Texas A&M—backed off that pledge on the heels of back-to-back losses (and attending the loss to Georgia Tech), flipping to Florida State after taking in their home win over Duke on Saturday night.
A reminder that the Canes and Noles are always fighting over the country’s best talent, in-state supremacy and national relevancy—this season’s showdown already feeling saltier than it’s been in recent years as both programs are on the rise—Cristobal and staff looking to land a year two blow that could take some shine off of what Mike Norvell and his squad are accomplishing in year five of his regime.
Lots of football to be played between now and then, so the focus shifts to the Cavaliers and Wolfpack, while the Canes get back to work after notching a season-defining win over the Tigers—a moment worth celebrating, before it’s back to the grind and mission at hand—returning “The U” to prominence one big moment at a time.
Christian Bello has been covering University of Miami athletics since the mid-nineties. Getting his start with CanesTime, he eventually launched allCanesBlog—which led to a featured columnist stint withBleacherReport. He’s since rolled out the unfiltered, ItsAUThing.comwhere he’ll use his spare time to put decades of U-related knowledge to use for those who care to read. When he’s not writing about ‘The U’, Bello is a storyteller for some exciting brands and individuals—as well as a guitarist and songwriter for his Miami-bred band Company Jones, who released their debut album “The Glow” in 2021. Hit him on Twitter for all things U-related @ItsAUThingBLOG.